Wilderness | Small Town | Mountain | Waterfront | City | Las Vegas
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For the first 15 years of our beautiful relationship, Las Vegas and I had kept things strictly superficial. Whenever the day-to-day realities of Los Angeles wore me down, neon Vegas beckoned from just a few hours away, no strings attached. I spent countless three-day weekends on the Strip pursuing standard Sin City escapism: concerts, blackjack, poolside bars. Steam successfully blown off, I would return to my beloved adopted hometown.
Then two summers ago I stumbled onto Mount Charleston. The original Vegas weekend plan had been the same as always, but this time the magic show was particularly bad, the slot machines particularly noisy, and 110-plus degree (43-plus degrees Celsius) temperatures made the blacktop unbearable. I woke up a little after sunrise on a Sunday morning and drove northwest. Within a few minutes I was in the desert; a few more minutes and I was climbing through a forest of bristlecone pine. The pavement ran out at 7,000 feet (2,134 meters). As I continued on foot, the city disappeared from view. At the top of Mount Charleston, nearly 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) up, Las Vegas returned to my sight line, but it wasn't alone. I could see the Sierra Nevada. I could see Death Valley. From a quick peek at my map I could see that a four-hour perimeter around Las Vegas contains six national parks, including Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon, two national recreation areas, 13 state parks, and millions of acres of national forest. Double that—say, a day's drive—and Utah's powdery slopes, Yosemite, and the Pacific coastline are all within easy striking distance. At that moment I felt like someone who discovers that an old friend has been hiding something.
Forty million people flood into Las Vegas each year, and a bookmaker would probably give extremely long odds that more than a trickle come to indulge in fresh air activity—promenading the Strip to gawk at phony volcanoes and dancing fountains excepted, naturally. Staring down toward the city from Mount Charleston, however, the highways surrounding the metropolis seemed for the first time to be leading not toward town, but away from it. It then occurred to me: In a city famous for keeping confidences, what happens on the outskirts of town might be its biggest secret of all—Vegas is a tantalizing outdoor hub. The best way to prove it? Spend a long weekend there—and not hit the casinos at all.
The scene we made at the Red Rock Casino Resort & Spa this past spring was odd, at least by Vegas standards. My girlfriend, Kalee, and I had arrived late Thursday night, making the five-hour drive from Los Angeles in the cool evening. We'd gone straight to bed, and by 7 a.m. were waiting—helmets on, hydration packs strapped in place—for my car to be brought around. The only other guests pacing the driveway were weary low rollers making their way back to the hotel. They greeted us with dazed stares as we pulled the bikes from the car's hatch and assembled them.
A few minutes later our guide Randy McGhie arrived. He'd recommended the early start: "You need to finish before noon," he'd told me, "or you'll literally be toast." McGhie owns two bike shops in the area. One of them, McGhie's, sits in the center of Vegas and is the biggest two-wheel emporium I'd ever seen. The other, McGhie's Bike Outpost in Blue Diamond, is about the size of my garage. Blue Diamond is a hamlet just 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Vegas Strip, but it is authentically rustic, with about a hundred homes, one general store, and a tiny public library. The reason a miniature bike shop exists there is Red Rock Canyon, the natural wonder into which the town was carved. (The village is pressed into the granite and limestone palisades that mark the geologic divide between the city limits and the open terrain to the north and west.) The steep rises and sheer walls of Red Rock have long been a checkmark destination for road bikers and climbers. A 13-mile (21-kilometer) loop through the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area begins with a four-mile (six-kilometer) ascent that attracts pro teams—and wannabes in replica jerseys—from across the world. The smoothly paved road horseshoes through a canyon, and the 200-foot-high (61-meter-high) walls are usually pasted with harnessed and roped visitors.
Mountain bikers rule most of Red Rock outside the official designated preserve, and McGhie's shop acts as start and finish line for dozens of shoulder-width trails that roll through the gullies and ridges surrounding town.
Soon we were off. McGhie has been riding these trails for more than 20 years, and for the next two hours we tried to adjust to the local riding style, which is more technical and fast-twitch than what we were used to back home. The toughest part, as Kalee and I swooped up and down between ruby-streaked pinnacles, was managing the transitions between hardpack and sudden sand as we dropped into dry arroyos. Our technique was inelegant, with comic decelerations and skids along the hot desert floor.
The standard comparison point for trails like this is Moab. The terrain at Red Rock looks similar but lacks the steepness and high exposure found outside the legendary Utah town. The real difference, though, is access. Moab requires hours of driving—its nearest major airport is almost as far as Vegas is from Los Angeles. And there are not a lot of post-pedaling options in Moab: You're pretty much limited to ordering burgers at the brewpub. Red Rock, on the other hand, is less than an hour from one of the country's busiest international airports. And you'll pass hundreds of restaurants, nightclubs, and bars on the way into town.
Heading back into Vegas, the narrow road leading from Red Rock turned into four lanes of fresh blacktop, so newly laid that the traffic lights had yet to be switched on. Houses were under construction everywhere and every street was lined with banners—LUXURY COMMUNITY! LOW $200S! ALMOST SOLD OUT!—that offered home buyers multiple community choices (and fanciful names): Pacific Breeze, Yellowstone, Green Valley.
Vegas's famously overheated housing market may have begun to cool—the median home price is $308,874 and is predicted to drop to $283,200 by 2008—but slowing or not, the city still looks every bit the boomtown. Job growth last year was double the national rate, and about 6,000 newcomers arrive every month, an influx that has remained steady for more than a decade. Few of these transplants plan to serve drinks or deal cards: They're here to treat sniffles, write contracts, maintain computer networks, and teach schoolchildren. The fastest-growing job category in Las Vegas is that of professional and business services. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, each new casino job is matched by four others on the outside.
The arrival of so many non-entertainment industry employees has transformed Las Vegas into more of a real city and less of a theme park. Top restaurants—such as Tre Fratelli, operated by the same family that runs New York City's Le Cirque—are finally being built outside the hotels. Even inside the hotels attempts are being made to lure locals who are interested in more than just baccarat and buffets. The recently opened Cannery Casino—three miles (five kilometers) from the Strip in North Las Vegas—includes a 16-screen movie theater; the megapools at the Hard Rock and Palms casinos are opening to residents (for an admission fee, of course; to swim for free, head to Lake Mead). The 180-acre (73-hectare) Springs Preserve—with hiking trails and a botanical garden—opened downtown this June. It is designed, according to director Francis N. Béland, to "represent for Las Vegas what Central Park represents for New York." Meanwhile, McGhie's cycling superstore was the result of an overwhelming demand for gear. "Everyone wants to ride a bike here, road and mountain," McGhie told me. Though his Vegas shop is in the town center, McGhie keeps a piece of Red Rock handy: a six-ton boulder, placed right in the parking lot.
How had I missed all this on past visits? "The secret is becoming more open," says Gary Roberts, co-owner of Moving Over Stone, a production company that released an hour-long video this year devoted exclusively to the Vegas adventure radius. Roberts (whose partner is legendary climber Doug Robinson) recently expanded his Sierra Nevada video series to include Las Vegas. "People might not realize it at first," Roberts says, "but Las Vegas is one of the best no-compromise cities for outdoor activity in the country."
Back at the hotel the valet allowed us to check our rigs right alongside Louis Vuitton luggage and golf clubs. Since we had arrived at night and left sleepy-eyed for our ride, this was the first time I actually noticed how close the hotel is to the conservation area's red sandstone peaks—high-dollar rooms overlook the wilds instead of the Strip.
After Kalee and I changed out of our sweaty bike clothes, I bumped into David Burt, a local outdoors writer who works part-time at the Red Rock resort. Burt's job is one that most Vegas innkeepers would consider blasphemous—he helps guests find stuff to do outside the facility, booking paddle trips on the Colorado River, guided hikes, and cycling excursions. The hotel also offers riders a package deal: a special $500 weekend rate that includes a high-end road bike rental (when you're through, you can take it home at a discounted price).
Burt is a big, excitable guy. He nearly fills his pocket-size office, which sits within aromatherapy distance of the hotel spa. When I told him of our next day's plan—a walk up Juniper Peak, at the edge of the conservation area—he stood up and vetoed the idea. "You're not doing that!" he said. "You have to go to China Ranch!" When I asked him what China Ranch was, he gave a somewhat cryptic description—something having to do with desert greenery and milk shakes—and made me promise to follow his recommendation.
Saturday morning Kalee and I drove over the Spring Mountains, about an hour into Toiyabe National Forest. Our route traced the old Spanish Trail, a mid-19th-century caravan pathway that stretched between Santa Fe and Los Angeles. Burt told us to watch carefully for a yellow sign. It was hard to miss: The road runs arrow straight, and the little placard, stenciled in take-out container calligraphy and indicating China Ranch, was the only man-made thing we could see for miles. Beneath the lettering was a single word: Dates. Thirty minutes later a second sign, just like the first, pointed us down a steep dirt road. We curved downward around rock walls. Halfway to the bottom, the desert opened, then practically vanished into stands of willow and cottonwood. My first thought was that until this moment I'd used the word "oasis" too loosely (a tavern in a bustling, unfamiliar city qualified if the beer was cold enough). China Ranch is the real thing: green and wet.
The ranch's two-room shop smelled like a bakery; trays bearing a dozen kinds of dates sat amid racks of postcards and guidebooks. A man kneeling by an oven stood up to greet us and introduced himself as Bruce Brown, explaining that he was just finishing a batch of secret-recipe date-nut bread. Burt had called—twice—to let him know we were coming. Brown removed his apron and led us behind the building, over a creek, and into a grassy clearing lined with rows of towering date trees. (The life-sustaining creek at China Ranch bubbles up from an underground spring. The Amargosa River runs—when it runs—just a mile (two kilometers) away.) Brown's family first planted this little riparian swath with dates before World War II but eventually sold the place. Brown remembered visiting as a boy and had always regretted that the ranch had fallen out of his family's hands. In the 1970s he bought it back and began to restore the orchards, which had grown into an unruly, feral mess. It has taken three decades to fully turn the place back into a working farm.
"But all that chaos had a good side," he told us, cheerfully. The neglect allowed the varieties to mingle, and unique hybrids were created. Now China Ranch's dates are prized all over the world. The little stand sells these dates, mailing them anywhere. We sent a box to grandparents back East.
When we asked Brown if there was a good hike nearby, he told us about a path leading to a slot canyon. "Walk above the creek until you get to an old railroad grade," he said. From there, we'd follow the dry riverbed until it slipped between narrow walls.
It took an hour to reach the eight-foot-wide (two-meter-wide) stone gateway. The day was hot—over 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius)—but the deep slot felt like another oasis, the temperature like an air-conditioned Vegas hotel room (that is, practically freezing). We climbed along a channel of pockmarked rhyolite until we reached what functions, more or less, as a cork: a car-size boulder plugging the canyon. From there, Brown told us, navigating the passage gets hard enough that we'd need to invest the rest of the day. We thought about it but turned back, lured by Brown's promise that waiting for us would be one of his trademark shakes—milk, ice cream, and dates; chocolate chips optional. We were on a Vegas vacation, after all. Blender beverages required.
I'd thought once that the Las Vegas civic motto should be the oft-used "Nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." Now I was having serious second thoughts. Our third day began with a real-estate excursion. Because so much of the desert surrounding Las Vegas is federally owned, there's hardly any room left for the city to expand. "Most of that land is either protected or owned by the military," says McGhie. The houses for sale in the town's more than a hundred new communities are crunched so close together—usually less than a few feet apart, with minimal front lawns—that newcomers expecting spread-out suburbs are welcomed instead by the concentrated feel of a true city. This proximity has two effects. First, Las Vegas is starting to feel less like sprawling Phoenix and more like metropolitan Los Angeles. Second, as McGhie says, "it helps guarantee that a lot of the places where we like to play are going to stay how they are."
The neighborhood Kalee and I visited—several people recommended it—is a development named Summerlin, which calls itself a master-planned community. Summerlin is still acting out a script written years ago. Every home, hospital, park, supermarket, church, and fire station was laid out far in advance. Building began in 1990 and won't be complete until 2020, when the community will house an estimated 200,000 people.
Homes in Summerlin come with intoxicating names like Bordeaux, Shiraz, and Riesling and are sold more like cars than real estate. We looked at a four-bedroom model priced at $385,000. It seemed like a bargain until we learned that the model was—like an automobile—not "fully loaded" and the figure we were quoted was for a bare-bones version. Nobody even considers buying the base model. Instead they choose from nearly a thousand upgrades ranging from a $40 "powder room light" to the "extended covered balcony #2" for $31,375.
Summerlin's key feature is its location. This community-in-progress doesn't just sit at the base of the Red Rock Conservation Area—it practically claims credit for it. Back in 2002 the Howard Hughes Corporation—that's right, the one founded by the reclusive billionaire who once barricaded himself in the penthouse of the recently demolished Desert Inn—swapped 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) of rocky terrain for the land now under construction. Similar land trades are common in Las Vegas, and most are controversial. Environmental groups assert that the exchanges are nearly always skewed in favor of the developers, preserving less and building more.
One of my favorite parts about living in Los Angeles—and something that has always been on my checklist for evaluating a possible move—is immediate access to the outdoors. Throwing a bike on top of my car and driving to a trailhead seems not just inconvenient and impractical, but wasteful. I've got Griffith Park, the largest urban green space in the country, complete with trails and no-cars-allowed roads, just a mile from my house. In Las Vegas similar access was unexpected. But clearly more and more outdoor-minded folks like Kalee and myself are getting the word—and getting attention. When we walked into the showroom, an agent immediately noticed our dusty hiking shoes and handed us the glossiest trail map I'd ever seen. It listed more than a hundred miles of pathways, including an under-construction connecting link to Bureau of Land Management property. Buy in Summerlin and you get your own personal gateway into Las Vegas's premier natural playground.
We had one more stop to make before heading back to L.A. Having resided in southern California most of my adult life, I'd long since ditched snow sports for things I could do in the sun. One of the more pleasant potential bonuses of a relocation to Vegas was an understanding that skiing—Kalee's favorite sport—would reappear on our recreational schedule. The Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort sits on the northern side of Mount Charleston. A few minutes after leaving Summerlin, we were driving up an access road leading to the hilltop.
To call the tiny assortment of runs (11) and lifts (three) at Charleston a "resort" is a stretch. But size isn't the point. It was mid-April and the 9,000-foot-high (2,743-meter-high) trails had only closed the weekend before. The ski area, a standard-feature local hill on which to practice for the big mountains, is just another ingredient that makes Vegas a surprising yet typical outdoor town, not so different from Jackson's Snow King or Vancouver's Mount Seymour. Brian Head, a more formidable Utah ski area, is three hours away; Snowbird and Alta are a half-day's drive.
As easy as it was to imagine living in Las Vegas for the things we'd been doing all weekend, it was hard to envision actually feeling cozy there. But lots of people do. Earlier I'd met a climber named Rob Foster, who moved to Vegas from Utah three years ago. The relocation was an attempt to find a way to make a decent income and continue climbing. He'd spent most of his 20s doing an assortment of odd jobs, earning just enough to live while he searched for rock. "That just wasn't working anymore," said Foster, now 36. "I was considering giving up." But within a few months of arriving in Vegas, he started a commercial cleaning business, which has now expanded to dozens of clients at hotels and local businesses. For the first time, Foster is climbing regularly and making a
good living. While some may consider Summerlin's rigid master plan restrictive, that's not an issue for Foster. "I like the idea that I know what I'm getting for my money," he said.
People don't move to Las Vegas to be closer to slot machines or first in line for Celine Dion tickets. They move for opportunity, both financial and recreational. This kind of opportunity may be more organic in Las Vegas than in any other city on Earth. That puts pressure on its civic planners—the town has huge challenges in terms of energy efficiency and water consumption—but while it has nearly doubled in size since 1990, it is doing better than most cities at managing growth. The average commute takes 24.4 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with 39.1 in New York City and 29.6 in Los Angeles. The Vegas figure has dropped by almost a minute since 2000. (But you need to stay away from the Strip with your car.) Transportation remains one of the town's open-ended questions. Though high-speed bus lines were recently launched, city planners rejected a light rail that would've begun running in 2012.
Since we'd spent no time on Vegas's main drag, we braved the Strip on our last morning, turning off the highway on our way out of the city and driving past the hotels. Even at ground level, eye to eye with what once seemed like the irresistible temptations of $10 blackjack and Don Rickles twice nightly, the daring gamble of actually moving here was looking more like a sure thing.
Would we do it? The ride home took forever. Fog in the San Bernardino mountains slowed traffic to a single lane, and we had plenty of time to talk it over. We still haven't decided, but we did agree on one thing: Las Vegas is a nice place to visit. You might even want to live there.
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